Investment in the British shale gas market is being threatened by “scaremongering” green campaigners, according to a leading industry executive, speaking before a government report is published this week on the environmental impact of fracking.
Chris Faulkner, a US executive known as the “Frack Master” in his home country, said the standoff involving shale gas driller Cuadrillla in Balcombe this year had caused concern across the sector with widespread coverage of clashes between police and protesters. Last week those scenes were repeated at an exploratory drilling site near Manchester as anti-fracking campaigners descended on a project operated by IGas in Barton Moss.
Faulkner criticised Cuadrilla’s response to the Balcombe protests, when thousands of protesters attempted to halt exploratory oil drilling near the West Sussex village.
“I did not see a strong message coming out of Cuadrilla during May and June when the demonstrations were taking place. The reaction instead seemed to be to put up a prison fence. Does that create a situation where people would like to come and invest large sums of capital? No, it does not,” he told the Guardian.
“The BBC was reporting every day it seemed from Balcombe last summer but what you did not find was the other side of the conversation. Whether you believe that voice or not – whether you join the fracking bandwagon or not, it is right to hear both sides of the argument. I don’t think the industry generally has done enough.”
Faulkner is chief executive of Breitling Energy Corporation, which is considering investing in British fracking projects. But the company is holding back until it is convinced the controversial drilling technique has the support of the political establishment. Hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – involves pumping sand, chemicals and water underground at high pressure to extract shale gas trapped in rocks.
Asked whether he feels the government is supportive of the industry, Faulkner said that only half of it backs fracking. This week energy minister Michael Fallon will present a report on the environmental and social impact of fracking. Fallon has already warned residents “right across the south” to expect the expansion of fracking. Shale licences cover 7,300 square miles of the UK but that number could increase. George Osborne is introducing tax breaks for shale drillers and believes the industry will bring “thousands of jobs, billions of pounds of business investment, and lower bills”.
Faulkner added that he is concerned by European commission plans for new regulations to cover the industry, as well as by the activities of British MPs in constituencies where fracking may take place. “I think that some still believe that making their constituency a frack-free zone is a way to get re-elected. But if you look at what happened in North Dakota [the heart of the US shale industry] – if local politicians had turned against fracking they would not now be sitting on a $2.5bn (£1.5bn) budget surplus.”
The Frack Master, a name given to Faulkner by a US trade magazine rather than his own public relations team, is most scathing about “scaremongering environmentalists”, whom he claims have used misleading arguments to further their cause. “Every argument they have, I believe, is manipulated information to create an argument to support their position which is: ‘we are against natural gas. We are against oil. We are against coal and whatever else’,” he said.
“Some people are concerned about specifics such as surface damage and the size of these drilling locations but the reality is that we can drill 30 odd wells from one single well pad up to two miles away. People think it’s all cowboys and horses back home, but we drill wells in downtown Forth Worth – in cities. Its not all country … there are wells drilled under universities, under churches, under the airport. Chesapeake has drilled 100-odd wells underneath the runways in areas where you have to consider safety to the highest degree.”
Faulkner, who will appear at a Welsh affairs select committee hearing on fracking this Tuesday, said he did not expect Britain to follow France and Bulgaria in banning fracking. “I think things are moving rapidly here and we are not far away at all [from investing]. It could be as soon as next year.”
Faulkner’s comments are unlikely to go down well with Lord Browne, Cuadrilla’s chairman and former BP boss, but the Texan is determined to face down the industry’s critics.
“I like a challenge. I guess I would never run from a fight if it was something that I feel strongly about, like the fact that the shale industry is being misrepresented. All I really want is a well-informed debate.”
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